The abrasive judge dishes on the upcoming season, Randy's album and advice for Britney?

American Idol came back to the airwaves tonight, January 15 on Fox, and recently I was in on a conference call with none other than Idol judge Simon Cowell. The judge had plenty to say about this new season and, of course, much much more.

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I know that we're going to start, as usual, with lots of bad performances in the early episodes. I know it must be agonizing for you guys to sit through, but is it all worth it at the end when the winner gets named and it turns out to be somebody who's very deserving?

Simon Cowell: Well, the answer is yes, it is worthwhile. Is it fun doing it? No. It is becoming increasingly like torture, but you have to give most of the people who come in at least three or four minutes, but it has gotten harder over the years. What's amazing, even after seven seasons, and we've had some shockingly bad people this year, is how much they still believe that they're right and I'm wrong and they got more argumentative with me this year. All I'm trying to do is help them. But I think that you have to have that mix within the show. I think that if it was completely sanitized, the audition process, that everybody came in and they were just competent, I think it would probably be the more boring show on TV. So, it's fun for me to watch. It is torture for me to do it.

Last season, I spoke with (executive producers) Nigel (Lythgoe) and Ken (Warwick) just as the finale was going on. They had said that they felt that the mentoring talent had overshadowed the contestants and they felt that they made a mistake with that. What are your thoughts on that?

Simon Cowell: Well, I sort of understand what they were saying because I think when you run, particular a 90-minute, even a two-hour show on American Idol, you actually haven't got a huge amount of airtime to do an awful lot of stuff with. I mean once you've done the judge's comments and the singing, the amount of time given to the film before the contestant sings when you have a mentor. It's very difficult for the audience to get to know much about the person. I mean if you had asked me, for instance, what do you know about the girl who won last year? Other than the fact she's a good singer, I couldn't really tell you myself, and I was a judge on the show. I think that was also the same with the people who watched the show at home. We didn't let the audience at home know enough about where they live, what their likes or dislikes were because everything was about their chat with, as you say, Diana Ross or J. Lo or whoever it was. I think this year there will be more focus on the contestants and less focus on the person who is mentoring them that particular week. It's a balance, and I think it's the right decision.

I was just wondering; do you have any personal favorites from this year, even if you can't name them? Also, following up on that, will we see any returning auditioners that we know from past seasons?

Simon Cowell: I'm not going to name any names because I always get into trouble for doing that. I might do it in a couple of week's time though. There are luckily three or four very strong guys and three or four very strong girls this year. It's probably going to be one of the most open competitions we've ever had. I can't call out a winner at this stage. In my mind I think I have an idea who could make the finals, but I'm not going to give anything away at the moment.

Simon, what do you think about coming to Omaha? I mean, it seems like it's good to go to different cities. Omaha doesn't jump to the mind, but what did you think about going there?

Simon Cowell: Well, I absolutely loved Omaha, some of the nicest people we've met. Incredibly welcoming. What's great, when you go to somewhere like Omaha compared to somewhere like New York where everyone in New York has been on auditions, it was more exciting. There was a naivety about it and I'm being positive when I say "naive." It was like doing the first season again. We got some talented people. It was different, and it just felt like you were in the heart of America. I really, really enjoyed myself. I had a great time there. I'm glad we did it.

I'm wondering what your thoughts were about the spin-off show about America's Next Great Band, and also if they managed to find you a spot on Randy's album?

Simon Cowell: Well, I never saw the Band show. I think I saw about ten minutes of it or something. It's tough doing band shows. It's a whole different ballgame to doing solo artists, which is why I've never done it before and probably wouldn't. In terms of Randy's album, you probably know more about it than I do. I think he's made a record with Paula, which should be interesting. Is Ryan on it? I haven't been asked to be on the album and if I was asked, I definitely wouldn't go on it, but good luck to him.

Any advice for Britney Spears? Did you listen to her album? Is it too late for her to make a comeback?

Simon Cowell: Well, it's never too late because I think she's the most searched artist on the Internet in the world at the moment. So, she has a head start. I genuinely think, if I sat down with Britney, I would, number one, remind her of all the good thing in her life, which are her kids, her money, her success - everything. So, I'd try and give her a sense of perspective. Then I'd take her out to where she's living at the moment and ask her to go and live with her family and live normally for six months because if you can live normally and do normal things, you'll suddenly find that the Paparazzi aren't camped outside your door everyday. Most importantly, just give her a sense of perspective because it looks to me at the moment that she's out of control and she has to have someone in her life who she has to listen to. She's welcome to call me anytime.

I'm calling from Houston. I know the last time you came to Houston, which was a very long time ago--

Simon Cowell: It was a disaster.

Yes, I remember you were not impressed at all with the talent.

Simon Cowell: Well, you have to agree with me on that one.

Well, Beyonce is from Houston.

Simon Cowell: Well, she didn't enter the competition. It was an absolute shambles that year. I remember.

I wanted to ask if Houston is still on the bottom of the list now that we've gone through a couple of years since then?

Simon Cowell: Absolutely not. I'd go back there in a heartbeat. It wasn't great, but we had an enormous amount of fun when we went. I always enjoy going to Texas. I think we've gone just about every year. So, I would push to go back to Houston next year. This year, if we do go back, you have a point to prove. Maybe it'll be better. So, I personally would put it at the top of the list.

Do you have an exit date planned for yourself with Idol, and do you think the show could survive if you leave?

Simon Cowell: Well, nothing is going to last forever. I think the exit point to a point is determined by the public who eventually are going to get sick to death of me, if they haven't already. I'd always, in my mind, kind of thought I would go up until the end of my contract, which would mean two more seasons after this one, which would have made it nine in total and nine years is probably enough to inflict on anyone. So that's what I sort of have in my mind. Can the show exist without me? Absolutely. It'll probably get better.

You can find American Idol on Tuesday's and Wednesday's on Fox at 8 PM ET.